FEBE talks exclusively to Chris Herbert, creator of the Spice Girls, Five and Big Reunion tours
Before manufacturing the Spice Girls, Chris Herbert ran a paintball business.
Let’s take a moment to enjoy that sentence; to savour its implications for the story ahead. For, like all successful entrepreneurs from Branson to Bezos, Chris Herbert was once just another guy trying to get ahead. However, with the decisions he took, and with hard work, good luck, sound judgement, as well as a host of other factors (including his late father’s ‘I owe you’ book), he has become a prolific entrepreneur.
Not only did he create Ginger, Sporty, Posh, Baby & Scary in 1994 when he was just 20. He also forged and managed Five with Simon Cowell, and ran Hear’Say, B*Witched, The Honeyz and many others. More recently, he re-engaged with his 90’s pop roots for the hit ITV show, The Big Reunion and the ultra-successful, money-spinning Big Reunion tours, where acts dust off their ‘90’s leather trousers to perform to packed stadia around the world. And his newest business interest, music-royalty tech start-up Audoo, looks set to fly too.
Eighteen months after inventing the Spice Girls, they axed Chris.
This is another crucial sentence in Chris’s story. After coming up with the idea for the Spice Girls and recruiting them, training them and breathing life into them, they walked out on him. The experience would have turned many less-positive 22-year-olds into bitter husks – especially after seeing the group’s subsequent success. However, the devastating loss had the opposite effect on Chris – it spurred him on. He told FEBE: “It hurt but I didn’t feel bitter when they walked out. I knew I could repeat the project, so I vowed to myself: I’ll do it again.”
Don’t lose heart. Go again – it’s the mantra of successful entrepreneurs everywhere, and it’s easy to say; much harder to do. However, Chris did it all right, as we’ll soon find out.
But first, let’s go paintballing.
The making of a formidable businessman
As a kid, Chris had a special teacher. His dad. His father Bob ran an Accountancy business that specialised in cabaret clubs and music performers. “I was exposed to music culture and the business side of pop,” he says. “I’d wake up, come down for breakfast, and the Three Degrees would be at the table talking to Dad. Things like that were just the norm. I quickly became a massive pop fan. I devoured Smash Hits and the NME, and I could tell you who produced what track, who engineered it, and who A&R’d it.”
Against that backdrop, Chris learned some vital lessons. “We were privileged – mum and dad were fairly wealthy. But I wasn’t spoiled,” he says. “Dad told me I could have almost anything I wanted – a bike, a stereo, whatever – but I had to earn it. He kept an ‘I owe you’ book, so if I wanted an Amstrad stereo system or something, he’d buy it and I’d have to pay it off through car cleaning and other jobs. I hated it, but that book was one of the best gifts he could have ever given me. His message was ‘work hard and you can have the good things in life’.”
“Blokes in a forest”
After leaving school in 1988, Chris trained as an electrical engineer at his local tech college. However, it wasn’t long before his inner entrepreneur broke cover. Halfway through that year, he went paintballing – a novelty activity in those days. “My lecturer invited me,” he says. “It was rough – literally a load of blokes shooting each other in a forest. But what I was doing was counting the pellets. They were 10p each and I thought: ‘There’s money in this.’ The next day, I said to my lecturer: ‘I enjoyed that, but more importantly they’re coining it in! Let’s set up a paintball site.”
Aged 17, Chris did just that with his lecturer. And, it soon became one of the biggest paintball centres in the UK. Two more locations in the south-east followed.
However, in the early ’90s, the recession and the Gulf War arrived, slashing corporate entertainment budgets and making pretend warfare less appropriate. The paintball fun was over. But the Spice Girls were waiting.
When will I be famous?
Chris’s next venture was an entertainment-listings magazine, Flair Guide, which he launched with a friend. “The idea was to build it up and franchise it,” he says. But the young co-founders had a disagreement (they are close friends again now) and the business faded.
Next, the young entrepreneur approached his father. “I said: ‘Dad, you’re running your Accountancy practice and dabbling in music management. I want to get into the music industry but can’t get a job with a record company. Let’s set up a music management company and break an act.’” His father agreed.
By “dabbling in music management”, Chris means his father’s management of the boy band Bros – or ‘Gloss’ as they were known back then. Chris went to school with Bros trio Matt and Luke Goss and Craig Logan and occasionally invited the then-unknown band to his house to practise. Bob Herbert saw their potential and managed their early career. Chris says: “Matt and Luke had the X-factor – that undefinable something – you could feel the energy. Seeing their star rise made me even hungrier to be involved in the industry.”
Sassy & sexy
With his father’s backing, Chris had the chance to flex his creative muscles, and he had an idea. He recalls: “At the time, boy bands saturated the market. The formula worked. Dad and our backer wanted to go down that route, but I wanted to reverse it. I thought a girl band – sassy, sexy and well put-together – could be more successful because it would appeal to female and male listeners. You’d double your audience.
“I wanted to cast the group like the TV show Friends. That show was a mismatch of characters and appealed to every segment of the population. Collectively, the characters work, even if they don’t individually. It’s the same with Sex & The City, the old Top Gear line-up and many other successful TV shows… they contain characters who are really different.
“We whittled the shortlist down to 15. Then Geri [Halliwell] walked through the door and… wow. Talk about filling a room. She had the X-factor. It wasn’t necessarily about talent; it was all about energy. That’s the thing about stars. They give off a power…a presence. It’s confidence borne of insecurity. What makes them stars is the yin and yang; they’re insecure but mask it with confidence. There’s an internal war going on – that’s the DNA of a star.
“In my career, I’ve never worked with anyone as ambitious and driven as Geri. If she walked into a room of 50 people, she’d have this internal heat-seeking camera that picked out the ones who could make a difference to her career. And she knew how to work them. I admired her but she was difficult to manage; we’d rub each other up the wrong way, which is probably what led to us going our separate ways.”
Hello and goodbye
Chris – now 21 – and his father chose the final line-up and realised they were on to something big. “Individually, they weren’t great performers,” says Chris. “There was a lot of work to be done. But they had this charisma and camaraderie, which became the ‘girl power’ thing. They would hold court in front of seasoned industry executives and turn high-powered executives into puppy dogs. It was brilliant to watch and that’s when I thought, ‘this is special’.”
However, just 18 months after Chris created the band, they walked out on him. The girls wanted to jump straight into a single and tour; Chris wanted to play a longer game: “They became frustrated because we’d rehearse the same routine every day. Drilling and drilling, vocal coaches, choreography. Ultimately, there was a mutiny. They walked out.”
It was a gut punch, especially because Chris and the girls – all of similar ages – had become friends. “It hurt because we’d become mates and we had invested time in each other,” he says. “But I didn’t feel bitter because I knew I repeat the process. So, I vowed to myself: I’m going to do this again.”
“We go again”
A year later, Chris met Simon Cowell, who at the time worked in A&R for record company BMG. Chris says: “Simon wanted to meet the guy who’d put the Spice Girls together. So we sat down and he asked me: ‘If you were to create another band, who would it be?’ I told him I’d buck the trend again, but this time with a boy band that appealed to males and females. I believed that a group who were a bit more laddish, with attitude, would do precisely that. Simon was like yep, great, let’s do it. So we did the same thing again but this time working with Simon.”
The result was boyband Five, who formed in 1997 and went on to sell more than ten million records worldwide. “It was a golden time for me,” says Chris. “I learned lots about managing a huge international brand, was recognised as a successful manager, and was named Manager of the Year by the Music Managers Forum. Doors swung open. It was everything I wanted from the music industry.”
Falling out (and making up) with Simon Cowell
On working with Simon Cowell, Chris says: “He’s one of the most charming guys you’ll ever meet. The ‘nasty judge’ you see on TV is a pantomime role that he plays brilliantly. However, he’s a ruthless businessman. You don’t mess with Simon. He’s single-minded, competitive and in many ways like an artist himself.”
Chris learned this the hard way when he dusted off a song initially written for a band that Cowell had signed to his Label, and recorded it with his own band, Hear’Say, in 2001. “He never forgave me,” says Chris. “Years later, a colleague set up a meeting with Simon and me, by which time Simon had become one of the most famous people in the world! I walked in and Simon said: ‘OK darling, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.’ I was like, really? Are you still hurt about that? He said he was. But we cleared it up and he invited me to work on X-Factor as a creative director.”
Chris’s biggest recent success is the Big Reunion, which launched in 2013. The likes of Five, Blue, A1 & 911 have worked off their dad bods in the gym and returned to the front line to sell out stadia to nostalgia-seeking pop fans around the world. Chris says: “The original plan for the Big Reunion was one night only, but tickets sold out within minutes, so we did more. Then the whole thing spiralled. We knew the opportunity was there. I don’t know where that knowledge came from; it was just instinct. I’ve been lucky a few times now by following my gut feeling, so I keep doing it!”
That instinct is good news for music-royalty tech company Audoo, Chris’s latest business interest, which he’s invested in and now co-directs. The start-up uses a small plug-in device – similar to a Bluetooth speaker – to monitor the music played in public spaces. It captures everything played, logs it and reports back to the royalties’ organisation, resulting in the accurate and fair distribution of royalties to music artists.
Audoo excites Chris as much as the Spice Girls once did. “No artist in our lifetime has been fairly and accurately accounted to,” he says. “Not Robbie Williams, not Adele, not Queen; nobody. That’s shocking and it needs fixing. Audoo can fix that, and sitting down with Ryan [Edwards – Audoo’s founder] felt like a Eureka moment.”
With Chris’s contacts, gut instinct, drive and positivity, Audoo couldn’t have a better person on board as it begins its exciting journey…