Graham keeps Unique on track

During 20 years in the music business rubbing shoulders with rock stars, Graham Jelfs successfully combined business with pleasure. He’s still doing so in his role as marketing manager for Unique Distribution …

Music’s gain was architecture’s loss. “I was, briefly, a student architect and pretty good at decorating perspective drawings with elegant script. A few years later the computer made that skill redundant – which was of little consequence as I was hooked on music and, to my father’s dismay, decided that was where my future lay.

“My brother was a terrific guitarist and I saw myself as a drummer. Sadly I wasn’t up to his high standards, so I sold the drum kit and bought a mobile DJ rig. I supported his band and many other rock acts in the area. I spun the discs at the local nightclub, arranged discos at the main hospital, and presented a weekly programme on hospital radio.

“And I became more involved with the hospital as probably the youngest committee member of the League of Friends in the country – the upside being permitted access to the nurses’ home!”

Graham’s first job was in Banbury’s largest record store. He soon worked up to manager and his contacts with the reps eventually led to a sales job with Polydor. “I made sure that the latest singles were stocked and promoted throughout the West Midlands. I had a roll of Sellotape on my wrist and a staple gun in my back pocket – if the store manager was busy I’d rearrange the dummy covers in the window to feature our titles and display posters on any available surface. It worked … and it was fun.”

It stayed fun even when he faced a howling mob of teenage girls in a record store in Birmingham. “The Jam were the country’s biggest act at the time and they were having an in-store autograph session. Rather alarmingly, the pressure of the crowd outside was causing a plate glass window to warp. Nervously, I called the police to clear the road at the back of the store so that we could make a rubber-burning getaway that Steve McQueen would have envied.

“Apart from concerns about our ability to stay alive and in one piece, we were due at a local radio station. A question about their 10 favourite tracks was listed, which they hadn’t prepared, so we cobbled the list together in the car. When Paul Weller was asked why he had made a particular choice, he said, ‘It was one of Graham’s suggestions.’

“After two years I was promoted to West End rep, doing to Oxford Street what I had done to provincial High Streets. That required a move to Hertfordshire. Shortly afterwards, I was approached to head a new sales team for Island Records. On Day One I had a desk and a phone. Six weeks later as the youngest Field Sales Manager in the industry, I was briefing 12 new reps, with 12 new cars filled with stock and PoS material sitting outside ready to go. The team rapidly made an impact and in 1984 contributed to the greatest year in the company’s history.”

He was then targeted by the Beggars Banquet label to head sales and marketing. “I eventually became Commercial Director and thoroughly enjoyed licensing and international issues”. Through a project with Gary Numan he built strong relationships within motor sport (“my passion”) and became “one of the first people to witness the power of the McLaren F1 road car and lead a music biz kart team to victory”.

It was very fulfilling, says Graham, but as he grew older he felt he was losing touch with the underlying mood that drove the industry. “Having moved back to Oxford, I was also commuting daily along three motorways and was constantly reminded of a bad motorcycle accident I had when young. I saw wrecked cars almost every day and wondered, ‘Am I next?’

“So I quit, did a stint as a consultant and renovated the house. I still missed the dynamics of a fast-moving business, though, and when I saw an ad for the marketing slot at Unique, I came running.”

That was five years ago and he says he hasn’t regretted a day of that time. “Like the music business, the mobile industry is young and dynamic and I enjoy meeting fresh challenges and working with great people.

“Having left the music industry it’s interesting now to discover that entertainment is becoming increasingly linked to the mobile business. There’s a strong feeling of déjà vu, especially as people in the mobile industry work and party as hard as those in the rock world.”

Personal File

  • My sport – Racquet sports and golf – one day I’ll get round in double figures. As a spectator it’s always motor racing – I’ve missed only two Le Mans events since 1982 and thankfully my son, James, shares my enthusiasm.
  • In Another Life – I’d be in motor sport. I was actually offered a role on the first day that I started at Unique!
  • I Admired – Barry Sheen and Ayrton Senna. And Brian Ferry, for being a perfect gentleman.
  • Dream Car – The McLaren F1 – or more realistically an Aston Martin V8.
  • Most Inexcusable Luxury – A Cranchi Endurance powerboat. Sadly, I don’t have it yet.
  • My holidays – The New Forest, where our dog runs free; and Devon, for crazy exploits at sea.
  • My books – Biographies of people I admire such as Richard Branson and Ron Dennis, who heads McLaren.

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