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Her most famous client only needs one name to be recognized, but legendary Madonna publicist Barbara Charone can go one better: she’s known throughout the music industry simply by her initials.
BC’s remarkable 50-year career is now being celebrated in her new memoir, “Access All Areas,” which has been the talk of the U.K. industry since its publication at the end of last month. It charts her journey from Chicago, where she grew up, to London, where she moved in the 1970s, via bust-ups with the Eagles, partying with the Rolling Stones and a brief spell managing Rufus Wainwright.
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Originally a music journalist for the likes of NME and Rolling Stone, she previously wrote the authorized biography “Keith Richards: Life as a Rolling Stone” (Richards even let her move into his notorious Redlands mansion to write it).
She moved into PR soon after, running the in-house press office for Warner Music’s WEA in London for many years, before setting up her own agency, MBC, with her business partner Moira Bellas, in 2000.
More than two decades on, MBC is one of the most powerful PR firms in the world, with a client list that includes the Foo Fighters, Rod Stewart, Metallica, Depeche Mode and, of course, Madonna, whom Charone has represented in the U.K. since she was an unknown pop hopeful in the 1980s. But while BC has been close to the biggest stars for decades, and the book takes you into many an inner sanctum, she insists it’s not her style to reveal too many secrets.
“All the artists that I work with are, in a way, incidental [to the book],” she tells Variety. “‘Access All Areas’ is about my journey, so the only person I really spill the beans about is myself.”
Even so, she makes clear her disappointment in R.E.M. – clients of Charone’s for 25 years – for switching PRs without any band member telling her in person (“A quarter of a century is a long time to work with someone,” she shrugs, “We’re only human beings”); while an interview with Stephen Stills during Charone’s music journalism days sees him portrayed as “having a chip on his shoulder so big it was a surprise he could get in the room.”
“I don’t think I’m the first person to write that he was like that, in those days certainly,” she says. “But, like I always say, famous people are just like regular people – they have good moods and bad moods. Some of them are great – and some aren’t.”
Generally, Charone, who recently picked up the Music Week Strat award for outstanding contribution to the U.K. music industry, has made a point of only working with the great ones, balancing a formidable protective urge towards her clients with a genuine appreciation of the media that covers them.
“It sounds crazy, but there are a lot of PRs that really aren’t that enamored with the press,” she laughs. “But I read four or five newspapers a day. I’m a newspaper junkie and the more you read, the more you know. Then it’s all about positioning and where an artist fits best.”
The U.K. media landscape has been greatly reduced since the 1980s and 1990s, when it boasted numerous big-selling music magazines and a multitude of national newspapers shifting millions of copies every day, but Charone still believes in the power of the press.
“I miss NME in print and I miss Q magazine,” she says. “It’s sad, especially for bands, that no one has filled the hole that Q left. But I’m a very positive, optimistic person – you have to be. We can’t change what’s happened but, as much as some music magazines have gone, there’s still Mojo, Uncut, Record Collector, Classic Rock and others, so that’s great. And we have so many daily newspapers, it’s really amazing. I refuse to get gloomy about it. We’re very lucky working in England, because we still have quite a healthy press compared to the rest of the world.”
There’s an incident in the book where Charone phones an editor to protest about a three-star R.E.M. review, until a host of similarly lukewarm assessments arrive and she realizes that maybe it really is a three-star album. She says she rarely complains about such things these days, but is adamant reviews still matter.
“I still worry about them because I care, and the artists care,” she says. “And the artist is pretty crucial to this whole thing – they see everything and an unhappy artist isn’t a good thing. Sometimes you also have to inject a bit of realism into a press campaign. But I don’t think a bad review could ruin anyone’s career now. They’re just one person’s opinion and taste is subjective.”
Charone wrote “Access All Areas” in lockdown after Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie stumbled across one of her old Rolling Stones interviews and encouraged her to reissue her Keith Richards book (Charone famously spent time with Richards in Canada while he was awaiting trial for heroin possession, forging a bond that continues to this day, with MBC repping his solo work). Rather than do that, she decided to write the book that, after a few drinks, she always told friends she wanted to, documenting a life every bit as interesting – and occasionally as wild – as her clients.
Charone recalls her major label days – when she would fight tooth and nail to keep major artists in-house – with fondness, but says the decline of label press teams in recent years has helped specialist agencies like hers flourish (“One thing everyone’s learned through the years is that there’s enough work to go around”). But, unlike some independent PRs, she says she’s never afraid to disagree with those she works with.
“It’s not just disagreeing with an artist, sometimes it’s also with the journalist or the newspaper,” she shrugs. “If somebody says no, you try and push them for a yes, but sometimes no really is no, and you have to just move on. Ultimately, it’s the artist’s decision what to do, it’s their life.”
Charone admits to the occasional misjudgment (“I was offered Lana Del Rey when she was completely unknown and I said no, just because I didn’t get it. So that was one that got away!”), but MBC’s roster is an impressive balance of up-and-coming British acts such as Sea Girls and Rag‘N’Bone Man, and global superstars. But surely some clients – Madonna, say – are more demanding than others?
“Everyone’s demanding,” she laughs. “I’m not just being diplomatic – it’s fantastic to work with someone like Madonna. I still don’t think she gets enough credit for the legacy of work she’s left, and continues to put out.”
Sports fanatic Charone has recently taken on a new role, as a non-executive director at English Premier League soccer club Chelsea, newly acquired by U.S. businessman Todd Boehly. Charone has been an obsessive Chelsea fan since she moved to London, but maintains the new gig won’t distract her from her PR business.
“I don’t anticipate not having time to do all my MBC work,” she smiles. “I’m not managing the Chelsea team, so I’ll think I’ll be OK!”
Similarly, she insists the success of her book will not turn into a new career (a second, more gossip-heavy instalment is unlikely because “it’s really not in my nature to be like that”), and that there are no retirement plans on the horizon.
“The pressure’s always on with PR,” she adds. “But I love it, because it is different for every artist. And I never know what’s going to happen in the day. Anyone could ring up this afternoon and say, ‘I’ve got this great new band or this amazing artist’ – and that’s exciting.”
“Obviously, there is no forever, but for the immediate future, I’ll keep going, definitely,” she adds. “I like working.”
“Access All Areas” is out now, published by White Rabbit Books.
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